Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Kershaw no Koufax ... and thank heaven!

Comparisons between Clayton Kershaw and Sandy Koufax are inevitable and, fortunately, misguided. Kershaw will never be used as Koufax was used, which means we don't have to worry that Kershaw will retire at age 30 with a traumatically arthritic left arm. That aside, Kershaw not only is the best pitcher, but the best complete baseball player going today.


Clayton Kershaw, left, and Sandy Koufax, right, aren't exactly mirror images (Original crop and collage. Kershaw photo by kla4067/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Koufax photo by unknown. It is believed that this cropped, low-resolution image constitutes fair use in the absence of a public domain image).

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles

Appropriate witness to the greatness of Clayton Kershaw is easily to be found, except in these pages, and we shall attempt to rectify that error forthwith.

Our version shall contain a slightly different wrinkle, however, for the usual account contains the details of Kershaw's standing merely as a pitcher, of which he is the best in the world at this moment, and for at least the last three or four years of moments, and, perhaps for three or four years of moments hence, if not for longer. 

If all one knows about Kershaw is the man on the mound and the pitches coming from his hand, that, alone, imparts the knowledge that the Dodgers left-hander is the best. The fastball isn't 100 miles per hour, but he has gotten it to 98, and he works it 92-95 with puzzling late movement that sometimes tails in on a right-handed hitter, highly unusual for a left-handed pitcher. But that slider, which touches 88, probably is his best pitch, and his looping 12-to-6 curveball is his most beautiful. They all work. Sometimes, rarely, he throws a changeup. It works, too. 

If all one knows about Kershaw is what appears on the spreadsheet, the black ink imparts the knowledge that the Dodgers left-hander is the best. Kershaw won his 19th game of 2014 on Sept. 14 in San Francisco, a 4-2 win against the San Francisco Giants. With 19 wins, Kershaw leads the National League, despite missing the entire month of April with injury. He missed four or five starts that way, enough for four or five wins. He's 19-3. He also leads the NL in complete games (six), ERA (1.70), winning percentage (.864), ERA-plus (210), fielding independent pitching (1.86), WHIP (0.826), fewest hits per nine innings pitched (6.1), strikeouts per nine innings pitched (10.6) and strikeouts per walk (7.82). He already won the Cy Young Award in 2011 and 2013, finished second in 2012, and has to win it again this year.

Kershaw now is working on his fourth straight NL ERA title, his third straight league leadership in ERA-plus, his fourth straight league leadership in WHIP, and his third league leadership in four years in fewest hits allowed per nine innings (which also is his fourth in six years). 

Comparisons with the all-time great Dodgers left-hander Sandy Koufax are inevitable, and they are rather forced. Each is the best left-hander of his time. That's where it ends, and where it should end. These are different times, and they are different men. Additionally, the great Koufax we remember and the great Kershaw of today are in different stages of their careers.

Behold, to begin, this composite of Koufax's last four seasons, 1963 through the present point in 1966. We'll never see anything like it again.

The closest to it that we will see today is this composite of Kershaw's last four years, 2011 through this point in 2014. It dazzles, but it does not compare.

We should remember, however, that Kershaw was much younger for the last four years than Koufax during 1963-1966. Kershaw is 26 today. Koufax was 30 when he retired at the end of the 1966 season. When we compare Koufax in the four years through his age 26 season to Kershaw's four years to this point, Kershaw is ahead, hands down. Here is the composite for Koufax for the four years ending with his age 26 season in 1962.

The Koufax we came to know began in 1963, his age 27 season, when he won the first of his three Cy Young Awards in four years. Kershaw will never be that guy, which is for the best. Teams invest too much in their premium pitchers today to load them up with 330 innings per year and force their retirements just so they may have functioning arms for the rest of their lives. Koufax did just that, and for just that reason, after the 1966 season.

At his retirement press conference, Koufax was asked, famously, how he could walk away from all the money he could make as a baseball player. Koufax replied that if a man lost the use of one of his arms, he would pay any amount of money to get it back and that, in a sense, is what he was doing. Koufax made $125,000 in 1966, claiming the highest salary in the game due largely to his dual holdout with Don Drysdale

Koufax already knew he was in trouble when he missed the last six weeks of the 1964 season with traumatic arthritis in his left arm. At the end of spring training in 1965, his arm was black and blue from hemorrhaging. He papered over it with cocktails of pain-killing drugs, ointments and ice, then pitched 335 2/3 innings that year. His feats of sacrificial endurance continued through Game 7 of the World Series, when he entered on two days of rest before all but ditching his curveball by the third inning. Throwing almost all fastballs, Koufax beat the Minnesota Twins, 2-0, in a complete-game three-hitter. 

Then came 1966, with its 27-9 record, its 1.73 ERA, its 41 starts, its 27 complete games, its five shutouts, its 323 innings and its 317 strikeouts, all league-leading totals. Then came his retirement.

Kershaw will never go through anything like that, and we should be grateful. No club would be dumb enough to abuse a great pitcher to that extent. The reason no club would be that dumb isn't so much that clubs are enlightened, as that they are invested. The Dodgers have Kershaw signed to a seven-year contract worth $215 millions. Or, we should say, Kershaw has the Dodgers signed to that contract. Koufax had the Dodgers signed to nothing, so tearing him up cost the Dodgers nothing. Those were the days before the union mattered, though Koufax also deserves credit for helping to make the union matter. His dual holdout with Drysdale showed players what they might accomplish by bargaining collectively. His early retirement showed players what they might lose by not bargaining collectively, though they were beginning to realize that already.

Kershaw is signed for six more seasons, at annual salaries from 2015 through 2020 ranging from $30 million to $33 million. At the end of that contract, Kershaw will be 32. Those salaries are guaranteed. The Dodgers are paying them even if Kershaw's arms fall off. The Dodgers will bear most any burden to keep those arms from falling off. The bore no such burden for Koufax.

So, Kershaw isn't Koufax, and we don't want him to be Koufax. Kershaw is something else, entirely, and, for this, he doesn't receive nearly his deserved credit.

Kershaw isn't merely a great pitcher, the greatest of our time. He is much more than that, an outstanding baseball player at all facets of the game. Pitchers aren't supposed to be great baseball players, and few are. They are supposed to be great pitchers, and few are even that. Kershaw is a great performer in every aspect of the game. He might not be Babe Ruth if he had the chance, but comparisons with Babe Ruth make about as much sense as comparisons with Koufax – if comparisons between Ruth and anyone make any sense, or, for that matter, if comparisons between Koufax and anybody make any sense. Ruth, of course, was a dominant left-handed pitcher with the Boston Red Sox before he became a dominant power hitter with the New York Yankees.

Kershaw has one home run in his whole life, a memorable blast on Opening Day 2013 to beat the Giants, 1-0. In his last four seasons, he is a .196 hitter, remarkable for any pitcher, considering that they place no emphasis on hitting. As a batter, Kershaw has positive WAR in his career (1.2). It is absolutely no rarity for Kershaw to throw a complete game and go one-for-three at the plate. Excepting the concern about possible injury, a manager in a bind wouldn't hesitate to run him up there as a left-handed pinch hitter.

Nor would such a manager hesitate to use Kershaw as a pinch runner, because he has more presence of mind and competitive drive on the bases than many everyday players. We saw a great example on Sept. 2, when the Washington Nationals visited Dodger Stadium. Batting with one out in the bottom of the fifth in a scoreless game, Kershaw singled. When Dee Gordon followed with a ground single to center field, Kershaw challenged Nationals center fielder Bryce Harper with a sprint to third base. Kershaw won the challenge, easily beating Harper's throw and enabling Gordon to take second. Kershaw, the pitcher, set a tone that day. Kershaw, the batter and base runner, finished it. With two out that inning, Adrian Gonzalez hit a ground ball to short and the Washington shortstop, Ian Desmond, lost so much nerve thinking about an aggressive Kershaw and a speedy Gordon that he threw wildly to home and both runners scored. The Dodgers won that game, 4-1.

As a defender, Kershaw's perfectionism continues. He won a Gold Glove in 2011, and certainly could argue for more. Kershaw has made only four errors in his entire career, which comes to 209 appearances (207 starts) his fielding percentages have been higher than the league averages for pitchers ever year starting with 2009 and, by the defensive runs saved metric, he saves five runs per game as a defender compared with other pitchers over the last four years.

Koufax, great of a pitcher as he was, never was any match for Kershaw as a hitter, base runner or fielder, by the metrics or by eye witness testimony.

It isn't simply that Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher of our time. There isn't a better complete player, period.

Editor's note: All advanced statistics in this piece are from Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise indicated.

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